There’s encouraging news mixed with some discouragement in AOPA’s annual Nall Report on aviation safety.
The good news is a 10-year trend downward in general aviation accidents, from 7.19 per 100,000 hours flown in 1997 to 6.32 in 2006. In fact, the report states, 2006 was the safest year in the history of general aviation.
On the other hand, a discouraging upward trend in weather-related accidents was noted, along with the fact that GA pilots are doing less flying than they were a decade ago, or even five years ago.
“As often in life, we make progress in some areas and backslide in others,” noted Bruce Landsberg, AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s executive director. “So it is with general aviation safety, and this year’s report is a perfect illustration of why trend information is more reliable than yearly snapshots.”
From 2002 to 2006, for example, the total number of GA accidents declined by an impressive 10.8%. The fatal accident rate decreased by 7.4% during the same period, down from 1.36 per 100,000 flight hours to 1.26.
That’s all good news. However, at the same time, GA flight hours decreased by 5.9% or 1.5 million hours, the report showed, and “personal flying, as compared to business and instructional flight, continued to show disproportionate accident involvement.”
Looking at that disparity in more detail, the report comments that experience – or lack of it – plays a significant role in safety, as do the quality of equipment and supervision, all tending to be better in the business environment than the personal one. Personal flying accounted for about half – 48.2% — of all GA flying, but a distressing 71.8% of fatal accidents.
Experience shows up as a huge safety factor, particularly for pilots who have logged 1,000 hours or more and those with 100 hours or more time in type.
Related to experience are comments concerning “pilot decision-making,” a term which, thankfully, appears to have replaced “pilot error.” The report suggests strongly that decisions tend to be better among more experienced pilots, confirming conventional wisdom.
“Year after year, we continue to see pilots making the same mistakes that lead to fatalities,” said Landsberg, who encouraged pilots to attend his organization’s safety seminars which, he said, “offer valuable information that may just save the lives of some of our attendees.”
The Nall Report’s comments on weather-related accidents lend strength to those about decision-making. “The majority of fatal weather accidents…resulted from VFR flight into IMC,” it stated. Such bad decisions accounted for almost 15% of all fatal GA accidents covered by the report. “The long-term trend for weather accidents continues to increase,” the report concluded, saying that “one possible explanation is that more cross-country flying is being undertaken in new, technologically advanced aircraft.”
More to the point: “The negative trend in weather accidents illustrates the difficulty of teaching judgment skills to a broad group of pilots flying under diverse circumstances.” Teaching good judgment has baffled flight instructors from the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss to modern times and the report found no new concepts for improving that situation.
Of the 1,319 general aviation accidents recorded in 2006, 973, or 73.8%, were attributed to pilot decision-making. Of those, 216 (79.1%) were fatal, a discouraging number indeed. Mechanical and maintenance issues accounted for 223 accidents, 30 of which were fatal. There were 123 more — including 30 fatal — for which no cause was shown.
While those pilot-related accident numbers are high, they are substantially lower than for the previous year, down from 1,076, representing a decrease of 9.6%. The fatal accident portion was down, as well, from 242 to 216, which is an encouraging 10.7%.
In summarizing, the report pointed out that “the GA accident rate per 100,000 flight hours continues its decade-long decline, having dropped from 7.19 per 100,000 hours in 1997 to 6.32…in 2006. The number of GA accidents has declined by almost 11%.”
Reiterating that the number of GA flight hours also has declined, the report put that in perspective. “While the over-all GA flight hours have dropped,” it said, “the decline in accidents…is outpacing the decline in flight hours; proof that GA continues to focus on and improve its safety record.”
That is, indeed, encouraging news.
The Nall Report is based on NTSB reports of accidents involving fixed-wing general aviation aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or less. The report is compiled each year by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.